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New Bar, Historic Building: 'Bar 1903' Eyes January Opening, From The Group Behind Liberty Bar

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Ryan Dailey
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WFSU-FM

A new bar is set to open in Downtown Tallahassee in a very old building. Bar 1903’s concept involves giving an homage to the history of a long-standing library building. Behind it is the team that opened craft cocktail mainstay Liberty Bar in 2014.

Located downtown, sitting right off the intersection of Park Avenue and Monroe Street and bordering the Chain of Parks, the former David Walker Library is a historic building sure to catch the eye of passersby.

Jesse Edmunds says it was "completely serendipitous," that Seven Hills Hospitality, the ownership group that runs Liberty Bar, the Hawthorn and El Cocinero, now find themselves renovating the building – with a target opening date in January. Edmunds is a partner and manager with Seven Hills Hospitality.

“We were not in a position that we were really kind of like, were actively seeking anything out. But my wife and I had dinner at (Downtown restaurant) il Lusso, we walked past the building – obviously it’s an iconic building for Tallahassee in a lot of ways, and it’s something that we made mention of ‘man, it would be really cool if that opened up to the public in some way,’” Edmunds said, during another day working on readying the interior. In front of him, the bar he’s in the process of building by hand – behind him, a bookshelf-style, mirror-backed case to display bottles to bar-goers.

The idea started inching toward reality soon after Edmunds fell in love with the building.

“It wasn’t a week later that the landlord got ahold of me and we connected. I came to look at the building, and honestly I just came in with the mindset of ‘I just want to see it,’ because I had never been inside,” Edmunds said.

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Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM
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WFSU-FM
Skylights in the ceiling with all original wood being restored are just some of the original features Bar 1903 will keep from the historic library building.

According to Edmunds, the building’s owner had a high degree of interest from parties looking to use the building for a myriad of uses.

“He spoke to probably 30 potential tenants – a lot of people that wanted to do offices that would close it to the public, a lot of people that wanted to gut the inside, or blow a wall out and put a pizza oven in here – things that would really change the integrity and historic nature of the building,” Edmunds told WFSU.

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Credit Florida Memory Project / State Library and Archives of Florida
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State Library and Archives of Florida
The exterior of the David Walker Library - year unknown - is in the State Library and Archives of Florida

But that’s a far cry from the Seven Hills Hospitality’s plan with the building, which they have under lease:

“What we wanted to do is come in and do something that utilized the natural infrastructure – so at this point, everything we’re doing is mostly around restoration of the existing structure, so refinishing all the wood, repairing the walls, repairing the foundation, cleaning and polishing the ceilings,” Edmunds said.

There’s plenty of the original flavor of the building remaining, which Edmunds and his team are incorporating into the interior design. Things like original bookcases, a small (only knee-high) handrail in the upper mezzanine, and original hardwood floors and oil lamps (now converted to electric). The Bar 1903 ownership will preserve the building’s exterior as-is, save for a small plaque denoting its hours of operation.

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Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM
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WFSU-FM
The sign for Bar 1903, which has a target opening date of January 2020, went up outside the building Thursday.

Edmunds says the Tallahassee Trust for Historic Preservation is backing the renovation and the opening of Bar 1903 – returning the building to public use.

Signs for the bar went up on Thursday, as the sign for the office of Springtime Tallahassee – it served as its headquarters starting in 1977 – was pried off. For a time, the building sat empty with no public use.

As the more than century-old “LIBRARY” marquee on the building suggests, the building was once a private subscription library – the first library to open in Tallahassee. Named after David Walker, the eighth Governor of Florida, the building served that purpose until 1956, according to the Tallahassee Historical Society and local historian Martha Saconchik-Pytel.

The old library building is relatively small, with about 2,300 square feet of floor space. Edmunds is factoring that into the bar’s concept accordingly.

“Very small, 35 to 40 seat boutique craft cocktail bar. We want the noise levels to be appropriate – we want it to be a place that’s part of the night and part of the experience of downtown. We’re not trying to compete with (Downtown restaurants) il Lusso or Savour, or Rootstock – we want to be part of that … Out of nowhere, Downtown kind of has this little corridor … you can park in one spot and have four to five experiences.”

Bar 1903 will serve food as well: “think tapas, small bites, bar sandwiches – little things.”

And while Edmunds and crew want to keep the historical integrity intact – they’re not going for a “speakeasy” type feel with Bar 1903.

“We’re trying to match that as best we can,” Edmunds said of making the renovations line up with its original style, “and very carefully juxtapose a little bit of modern on top of it. We’re not going for a period bar or anything pretentious, where everyone’s coming in with suspenders, monocles and top hats – none of that crap. But we do want to pay homage to the fact that this building is from 1903.”

You guessed it – that’s how the bar got its name.

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Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM
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WFSU-FM
The historic bank building in Downtown was also once the headquarter office for Springtime Tallahassee. That sign was pried off the building Thursday, to make way for new signage,

When it comes to the target opening date of sometime in the latter part of January, Edmunds says there’s a goal of having it open during the Legislative Session – which kicks off January 14.

“We’re trying to do something special here that preserves the integrity of the building, so that people in town can come and enjoy it again, instead of it turning into another political office or lawyer’s office,” Edmunds said.

In other news regarding Seven Hills Hospitality restaurants, El Cocinero on Mahan near Leon High School is set to move into a new property. Edmunds says it’s planned to move into a building on 6th Avenue and Thomasville Road near Midtown.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.